Home Blog Advancing Social Justice Through Policy Change

Advancing Social Justice Through Policy Change

January 10, 2024
Many people with signs protesting for social justice reform.

Social issues are a significant source of concern for many Americans. According to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey, over 60% of U.S. adults view healthcare affordability, drug addiction, and gun violence as “a very big problem” for the country. Other widely recognized problems include climate change, immigration and racism.1 Unfortunately, these issues often disproportionately affect vulnerable communities, such as impoverished people and people of color.

Many policymakers and social workers seek to address these problems by promoting social justice. According to the Center for Economic and Social Justice, social justice “imposes on each of us a personal responsibility to collaborate with others… to design and continually perfect our institutions as tools for personal and social development.”2 In short, social justice asks us to work to better our society, particularly for disadvantaged groups.

This blog post examines how social workers can advance social justice and improve institutions by leading policy change.

Understanding Social Justice

Social justice may seem like a new buzzword, but this concept has a long history. In 1848, activists organized the first Women’s Rights Convention to promote gender equality.3 In the 1960s, participants in the Civil Rights Movement fought to end racial segregation and reform voting laws.4

In the twenty-first century, advocates have continued the battle against social inequities. More recently, a lot of social justice movements have focused on racial justice, health equity, mental health care and gender identity/sexual orientation issues. The Black Lives Matter movement started in 2013 after a police officer was acquitted in the shooting death of an African American teenager. In general, the nonprofit organization behind Black Lives Matter protests police brutality, racial profiling, criminal justice reform and other forms of systemic racism against Black people.5 Meanwhile, the DREAMers movement led to the implementation of state-level tuition equity laws for children of undocumented immigrants.6

According to the Council on Social Work Education, central principles of social justice policy include:7

  • Everyone has the right to freedom, healthcare, privacy and safety
  • Voting is an essential civil liberty
  • Legislation must ensure that environmental policy decisions consider all communities
  • Immigrants have human rights that must be supported and reaffirmed

The Role of Public Policy Advocacy in Advancing Social Justice

Public policy directly impacts the lives of all Americans, especially marginalized groups. They determine how we design and access human services, employment opportunities, the education system and more. But since many of these policies were created several (if not several hundred) years ago and are often difficult to change, these laws and principles can often perpetuate social injustices.

Political action is one of the most efficient and direct channels to create change. That's why social justice advocates must petition their elected officials and actively participate in civic engagement opportunities, like elections and town halls. Officials who promote progressive policies will help create a more equitable society through robust, structural changes from the top down.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 is one of the most impactful policies in recent history. This law fights discrimination in the health care system by allowing millions of previously uninsured Americans to access affordable health insurance.8 For the education system, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 fosters equity in American schools. This policy provides resources to school systems serving traditionally underserved students and aims to close achievement gaps.9

Identifying Areas for Policy Change

Social workers can use many methods to determine where to focus their public policy advocacy efforts, such as the social determinants of health and intersectionality analysis. Let’s learn more about these methods.

Social Determinants of Health

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion defines social determinants of health (SDOH) as “the conditions in the environments where people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.”10

SDOH include:10

  • Access to nutrition
  • Education
  • Job opportunities
  • Literacy skills
  • Safe housing

Social workers can increase equity by advancing policies that improve these environmental factors. Some issues may not seem to have an immediate connection but still affect SDOH. For example, outside of the environmental hazards (e.g., clean water, solid structures) that you think of for safe housing, working to prevent domestic violence will also help to ensure safety. Another example is reforming the current criminal justice system to allow more job training opportunities for inmates.

Intersectionality Analysis

In 1990, Marilyn Loden and Judy Rosener created the intersectionality framework to examine how personal characteristics overlap with systems to shape an individual’s experiences. These characteristics include age, gender, race, sexual orientation and religious beliefs, among many others.11

Social workers can use intersectionality analysis to detect forms of harm that people experience due to their various identity characteristics.

Strategies To Promote Social Action and Change

Social workers and other leaders use many techniques to inspire social action and enact change. Consider the following strategies.

Grassroots Organizing

Grassroots organizing is collective action focused on building change from the ground up. This approach empowers individuals and communities to improve their lives. For example, the Justice for Vulnerable Groups project gave motorbikes to police officers in Malawi to help them respond to gender-based violence calls more effectively. This initiative also encouraged schoolchildren to report violence to authorities.12

Community Organizing

The Social Justice Resource Center defines community organizing as “a democratic strategy used by social justice movements, labor unions, under-represented communities and marginalized groups to gain rights, win collective political power and create positive change.” Labor unions and parent advocacy groups are two examples of community organizations that, with meaningful participation, have been able to improve people's well being.13

Human Rights Education

According to the United Nations, “human rights education promotes values, beliefs and attitudes that encourage all individuals to uphold their own rights and those of others.”14 Social workers can advance social justice by helping community based organizations and schools develop human rights education programs.

Participatory Research

Participatory research allows community members to collaborate with academic researchers to research social injustice and develop solutions.15 Social workers can participate in this research and build community partnerships.

Policy Evaluation and Monitoring

Policy changes require continuous monitoring to ensure they are operating effectively and are not causing unintended harm. A policy evaluation should consider:16

  • Implementation challenges and solutions
  • Policy outcomes
  • Impact on program participants
  • Costs and benefits

Evaluating these components can help policymakers identify areas of improvement and scale up successful programs.16

Ensuring Equity in Policy Implementation

Even well-intentioned policymakers can find it challenging to create equitable policies. These strategies can help leaders develop programs that promote social justice:17

  • Engage community leaders and members in decision-making and policy development
  • Conduct a community needs assessment
  • Involve community members in policy evaluation processes
  • Practice transparency by sharing frequent progress updates

Lead Social Action with Yeshiva University’s Online MSW

Take the next step on your professional journey and contribute to developing a more equitable society. Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work (MSW) program will help you gain the knowledge and skills to shape policy and inspire change. Make a lasting impact on your community while advancing your career.

The online MSW program prepares you to tackle complex social issues and overcome challenges. Our seasoned faculty teach rigorous courses, including Advanced Policy Advocacy, Cultural Diversity, and Social Welfare and Social Change. You’ll also hone your skills by participating in supervised fieldwork and earning an optional certification in gerontology and palliative care or alcohol and substance abuse counseling.

Schedule a call with an admissions outreach advisor to learn how you can make a difference with an MSW from Yeshiva University.

  1. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from pewresearch.org/politics/2023/06/21/inflation-health-costs-partisan-cooperation-among-the-nations-top-problems/
  2. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from cesj.org/learn/definitions/defining-economic-justice-and-social-justice/
  3. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from nps.gov/articles/featured_stories_wori.htm
  4. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/post-war-united-states-1945-1968/civil-rights-movement/
  5. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from loc.gov/item/lcwaN0016241/
  6. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9380869/
  7. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from cswe.org/getattachment/Advocacy-Policy/Policy-Agenda/CSWE-Principles-Documents/CSWE-Principles-for-Social-Justice-Policy-2021.pdf
  8. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from aclu.org/news/disability-rights/the-affordable-care-act-and-with-it-our-civil-rights-are-under-attack
  9. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from ed.gov/essa
  10. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from health.gov/healthypeople/priority-areas/social-determinants-health
  11. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from gov.scot/publications/using-intersectionality-understand-structural-inequality-scotland-evidence-synthesis/pages/3/
  12. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from unhcr.org/innovation/grassroots-organizations-are-just-as-important-as-seed-money-for-innovation/
  13. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from socialjusticeresourcecenter.org/facts-and-figures/community-organizing-facts-figures/
  14. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from ohchr.org/en/resources/educators/human-rights-education-training
  15. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9258244/
  16. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/issue-briefs/2018/03/targeted-evaluations-can-help-policymakers-set-priorities

17. Retrieved on December 30, 2023, from energycenter.org/thought-leadership/blog/prioritizing-equity-policy-and-decision-making